Local Customs in Poland

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Local Customs and Considerations for Travel in Poland


Some men, particularly older men, may kiss a woman's hand when greeting or saying goodbye. Kissing a woman's hand is considered to be chivalrous by some, but is more and more often seen as outdated. Handshakes are quite common; however, it is very important to remember that men should not offer their hand to a woman - a handshake is only considered polite if the woman offers her hand to the man first. For a more heartfelt greeting or goodbye, close friends of opposite sex or two women will hug and kiss three times, alternating cheeks.

A fairly common practice is for people to greet each other with a dzień dobry (good day) when entering elevators, or at the very least, saying do widzenia (good bye) when exiting the elevator.

It is usual to bring a gift when invited to someone's home. Flowers are always a good choice. Florists' kiosks are ubiquitous; be sure to get an odd number of flowers, as an even number is associated with funerals. Poles will often bring vodka or whisky, but this depends on the level of familiarity, so tread carefully.

It is customary to hold doors and chairs for women. Poles are generally old-fashioned about gender etiquette.

Men should not wear hats indoors, in particular when entering a church. Most restaurants, museums, and other public buildings have a cloakroom, and people are expected to leave bags and outerwear there.

The practice of placing one foot on a chair while reading or studying something is very much frowned upon.

It is hardly advisable to refer to Poland (as well as to some other countries like Czech Republic, Slovakia, or Hungary) as Central Europe, and not Eastern Europe. Although not very offensive, if used, it may reflect foreigners' ignorance and a certain disrespect of the history and clearly Latin cultural heritage of the countries from the region. Poles themselves refer to the "old" EU west of its borders as "Zachód" (West) and to the states created after the break-up of the USSR as "Wschód" (East). Geographically this is borne out by drawing a line from the tip of Norway to Greece and from the Urals to the coast of Portugal. For better or worse, Poland remains at the cross-roads of Europe, right in the continent's center. In global terms, politically, culturally and historically, Poland belongs to "the West".

Another small faux pas involves confusing Polish language with Russian or German. Poles value their language highly as it was kept at a high price during a longer period of oppressive depolonisation during the partitions and WWII. For example this means not saying 'spasibo' or 'danke' for 'thank you' just because you thought it was Polish or you didn't care. If you're not sure if your 'Polish' words are indeed Polish or not it would be seen as extra polite to ask.


The Poles may well be the most devoutly Catholic people in Europe. The late Pope John Paul II in particular is adored here, and the Church is held in generally high esteem. Bear this in mind if religion is brought up in conversation with a Pole. Also be sure to dress modestly if you enter a church, especially during services.

The Holocaust and World War II

The Holocaust, as many historians note, was the genocide of European Jewry. While it is true that the Nazis were determined to annihilate Jews, one needs to remember that other ethnic, religious and political groups were also targeted. Poland was undoubtedly particularly painfully experienced during the war. It is now estimated that the Germans killed at least 6 million Poles. Among the victims, 3 million were Polish Jews. Additionally, over 3 million non-Jewish Poles were also murdered, and many others were enslaved. Many members of minority groups, the intelligentsia, Roman Catholic priests, and political opponents of the Nazis were among the dead. What is more, also the Soviets (who invaded Poland shortly after the Nazis and later occupied it after the World War II) were determined to exterminate various sections of the Polish society (including, among others, members of the anti-Nazi resistance, business owners and democratic activists). Between the census of 1939 and the census of 1945, the population of Poland had been reduced by over 30% from 35 million to 23 million.

In this context, it is important to be sensitive to the fact that the time of war and Soviet occupation was a tragedy for not only Polish Jews, but nearly all members of the Polish society. And while some Poles might have expressed active or benign support for the Nazi acts of anti-semitism, the vast majority of the society was vehemently opposed to it and suffered together with their Jewish compatriots at the hands of the oppressors. It is worth noting that Poland was the only Nazi-occupied region were helping Jews was punishable by death to one's entire family - a policy that was to a large part implemented in response to the widespread solidarity between Jews and non-Jews in occupied Poland. It is hence seen in Poland as insensitive to either accuse the Poles for any aspect of the Holocaust or to downplay the sufferings of non-Jewish members of the Polish society during World War II.

Visitors should also note that similar to Germany and Austria, displaying Nazi symbols are illegal except when used for educational purposes, and that holocaust denial is a crime in Poland, and both would result in a prison sentence. While exceptions are technically made for the Swastika when used in a religious context for Buddhists, Hindus and Jains, you may be subject to lengthy questioning by the police if you choose to wear the symbol.


Due to the extremely painful experiences of Soviet occupation and brutal communist rule, the topic of communism (or socialism) are quite controversial and sensitive in Poland. While some tourist-oriented businesses might be playing with communist symbols or offer "communist-style tours" (especially in Cracow), many Poles see communist symbols and rhetoric as only slightly less unacceptable than Nazi swastikas or slogans. Unlike in the West, few people in Poland (and especially few elderly people) find communist symbols romantic, funny or trendy. For most of the Poles, communist times were marked by shortages of consumption goods, state-terror and closure of borders. Many Poles are proud of the Solidarity movement and its part in the breaking down of the European communist system. Bear these issues in mind if communism is brought up in conversation with Polish people and make sure not to disrespect anyone's memory or feelings regarding this issue.

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